Thursday, December 09, 2010

Belshaw's World - damning numbers and cultural enlightenment

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 1 December 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

As many readers of this column will know, I am trying to write a general history of the broader New State New England, the North.

In this column I want to talk about the next stage in the project, one that I hope will form the base of a paper to be delivered in Armidale early next year, a paper on social change in New England between 1950 and 2000.

This is a topic that I have been dodging because I find elements of it so depressing.

In 1950, all the New England media was locally owned. By 2000, most were part of externally owned media chains.

In 1950, most major local organisations were locally owned or, at least, locally headquartered. By 2000, most were externally owned and controlled.

In 1950, the dream of self-government, of our own state, was alive. By 2000 it seemed dead and almost forgotten.

In 1950, the inland population rivalled that on the coast. As late as 1974, it was still possible to believe that Armidale’s population would pass 40,000 by 2000. Indeed, official projections said so. By 2000, inland New England was in absolute and relative decline.

In 1950, New England’s population and wealth was greater than that in South or West Australia. By 2000 we had slipped in population, more so in wealth.

By early in the new century, the poorest Federal electorate in Australia was to be found in New England. Fourteen of the identified poorest localities in Australia were in the North.

Of course, not all the changes were bad.

I, for one, would not want to go back to the world of sectarian divides. Women have far more opportunities, something that is important to me in a personal sense as a father with daughters. There are far more educational opportunities today.

All this said, there have been enough negatives to make it difficult to for me to write about it given my emotional involvement with the area in question. Still, I had to look at it if I was ever to complete the book.

As I dug down into the topic, I found it increasingly interesting. Indeed, I became fascinated.

The social changes that took place in New England over the period were, in some ways, a microcosm of those taking place elsewhere. You would expect this.

The mass migration programs that followed the Second World War, changing gender roles, changes in religious expression, structural change and associated changes to the world of work were all broader changes.

Yet while changes such as these were broader changes, their particular expression within New England is still interesting, still important. It’s not just that it forms part of our own immediate history, but also because the particular local expressions of change can help us better understand broader patterns of change.

We have already seen one local example of this in Don Aitkin’s What was it all for, a history of social change in Australia seen through the eyes of the Armidale High Leaving Certificate class of 1953. This is a very good book indeed.

When we talk about history in general and social change in particular, we talk about trends, about movements, about big social shifts. We use words such as revolution,

When we talk like this, we forget that change takes place because of individual decisions, that people are affected by change in different ways.

The twelve hundred meat workers who lost their jobs when the Tablelands meat works closed are not just a statistic, but people directly and permanently affected by change.

The closure of the BHP steelworks in 1997 was an economic decision that took place against a background of industry change and of changing policies in Canberra and Melbourne. It also marked a fundamental shift in the very psyche of Newcastle, for the BHP as it was known, had been a dominant feature of the city for much of the twentieth century.

The big changes such as the decline of many of New England’s traditional industries or the rise of the coast are relatively easy to see. However, there are also smaller and more subtle changes that can lie concealed.

The remarkable growth in New England’s cultural activities is one such change.

As one measure, I think that there are more published authors living in Armidale today than in the whole of New England in 1950.

This change is not limited to Armidale, but can be seen in varying forms across the North. Newcastle, for example, has established its own gritty cultural tradition that finds expression in writing, music, photography and film.

As you can see, I do find all this quite fascinating. I hope to share some of it with you over the next few months.

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